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Purdue biologists clarify how a cellular 'spacecraft' opens its airlock

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Scientists have a tough time visualizing the tiny hatchways that allow nutrients to pass into our cells, but a group of Purdue University biologists may have found the next best thing: a glimpse into the workings of the "motor" that opens and closes them.

A research team led by Jue Chen has clarified the connection between these minuscule gates - which are called membrane transport proteins - and the steps by which they use a cell's energy to permit or deny materials entry into the interior of the cell from the outside world.

In what the team perceives to be a three-step process, cells feed chemical energy to a tiny machine called an ABC protein, which is the part of the membrane protein that connects it to the interior of the cell. These ABC proteins use the energy to bend the membrane protein into its open and closed positions, allowing the cell both to bring in nutrients and to flush out waste. "We think we have a better handle on a process fundamental to life in creatures from bacteria to humans," said Chen, who is an assistant professor of biology in Purdue's College of Science. "This is the first time the entire cycle has been visualized, and this could enhance our understanding of how the process of metabolism unfolds."

The team's paper appears in this week's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Chen's group also includes her Purdue colleagues Gang Lu and James M. Westbrooks, as well as Amy L. Davidson, who recently relocated to Purdue from the Baylor College of Medicine. The team used X-ray crystallography and other advanced imaging techniques to obtain a clear picture of the ABC protein, a method which has only had limited success in revealing secrets of the membrane proteins themselves.

Membrane proteins in cells have been likened to spacecraft airlocks, which ensure that only the astronauts gain entry and no air is lost. Where spacecraft have metal walls, cells have membranes
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Contact: Chad Boutin
cboutin@purdue.edu
765-494-2081
Purdue University
2-Dec-2005


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